Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the University of Bristol's online course, Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds Today’s mini-lecture will focus on what is perhaps

Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds Russia’s most famous monument: the Bronze Horseman. I will be speaking about its importance in Russian culture and history. The Bronze Horseman is a statue of Tsar Peter the First – or Peter the Great – mounted on a charging steed. Unveiled in 1782, the statue is located in St. Petersburg, then Russia’s capital city. The statue achieves its uncanny lifelike quality because the horse is reared up at an unusually steep angle and the statue has so few contact points with the pedestal. The horse’s front legs and its body appear suspended in the air, mid-gallop, creating an illusion of dynamism. The hind legs are trampling a snake underfoot.

Skip to 1 minute and 1 second This snake perhaps represents Peter defeating his enemies or overcoming Russia’s backwardness, and it also adds an extra contact point to help support the statue. It was not Peter himself who ordered the erection of the statue, but another of Russia’s ‘Great’ Leaders, Catherine the Great or Catherine the Second. She saw herself as continuing Peter’s mission to modernise Russia. She shared his fascination with Western European culture, and his zeal for expansionist empire-building. It is fitting, therefore, that Catherine should have the statue inscribed not only in Russian but also in Latin (the universal language of empire). It is appropriate, too, that the Westernising Catherine should commission a Frenchman, Etienne Maurice Falconet, to sculpt the statue.

Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds The Bronze Horseman takes pride of place in central Petersburg, the city Peter himself had founded in 1703. Peter took a keen interest in architecture, and was inspired by a tour to northern Europe in the 1690s where he was particularly impressed by Amsterdam. Peter conceived the radical idea of constructing a similar city in Russia, using imported architectural styles and construction methods. He hired architects, engineers and urban planners from Western Europe - Italians, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, Germans and Englishmen - to help construct his new capital, St. Petersburg. It soon gained the nickname of being ‘Russia’s Window to the West’, a moniker that has stuck, as the city’s classical ‘western’ facade remains visible even today.

Skip to 2 minutes and 47 seconds There was, however, a darker side to Peter’s reign and to the city’s construction. The conscript labourers tasked with the construction of the city had to toil in terrible conditions of squalor and disease. The city was constructed on a marsh, and dysentery and malaria were common. The historical record is unclear on exactly how many lost their lives, but a myth has sprung up of Petersburg as a city ‘built on bones’. It would be a mistake to interpret Peter’s reign simply as Russia’s leap into an enlightened future. An awareness of this mixed legacy of Peter leads us to see the Bronze Horseman in a rather different light.

Skip to 3 minutes and 31 seconds The great writer Aleksandr Pushkin offered a famously ambivalent depiction of Peter in his 1833 poem also called The Bronze Horseman. The poem begins as a celebration of Peter and the marvels of Petersburg, but it then turns to the tragic story of a petty clerk, Evgenii, who goes insane after losing his beloved Parasha in a great flood that sweeps through the city. The grief-stricken Evgenii vents his fury on the statue, cursing Peter for founding a city in a marshy location that was so vulnerable to flooding. On hearing Evgenii’s insult, the Bronze Horseman springs to life, and in a terrifying passage, the mounted Peter gallops after poor Evgenii, chasing him through the city streets.

Skip to 4 minutes and 21 seconds Evgenii survives the chase but is left a psychological wreck. He can no longer walk past the statue without averting his eyes and feeling a tremor in his heart. The poem concludes with a fisherman finding his dead body by the ruins of his beloved Parasha’s hut. In suggesting that Peter may be ultimately responsible for the fate of Evgenii and Parasha, Pushkin’s poem becomes an inquiry into the ethics of Peter’s modernisation drive. The poem causes us to marvel at how the will of an autocrat can affect the lives of ordinary people. The myth of the Bronze Horseman, then poses challenging ethical dilemmas. When do the costs of modernisation outweigh the benefits? Who pays the price for progress?

Skip to 5 minutes and 11 seconds What are the positive and negative consequences of a society that invests so much confidence in a single autocratic leader? Such questions would continue to haunt Russia not only through its Imperial history, but through the Soviet period too, and they retain a timely relevance when we think about Putin’s Russia today.

The 'Bronze Horseman' with Dr Connor Doak

This video will tell you about the ‘Bronze Horseman’.

It’s OK to pause the video or to watch it as many times as you like. The video subtitles do not show the accented characters, unfortunately. To see them you might like to refer to the transcript that is available below in the section ‘downloads’ - click ‘English Transcript pdf’.

(After you watch the video and click the pink circle ‘mark as complete’, move on to the next step and read the article ‘More about the monument’.)

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction

University of Bristol